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Life sucks. Or is it just my birth control?

With all the stresses in life, it can be hard to know what is bringing you down. Let's take a look at the myths and facts about birth control and depression.

by Grace Shih, MD, MAS

With all the stresses in life, it can be hard to know what is bringing you down. Is it the upcoming test that’s stressing you out? Is it the fight you had with your friend? Is it your co-worker being rude for no apparent reason? Or is it your birth control? Let’s take a look at the myths and facts about birth control and depression.

FACT: Depression is common.

Depression is a serious health problem that is often overlooked. About one in five people living in the United States will experience clinical depression at some point in their lives and depression is the leading cause of missed school or work in people between ages 15 and 44. Although both men and women can become depressed, women are more likely than men to experience depression.

It’s true that we all feel sad once in awhile, but for most people, these feelings pass in a few days. If you have a depressive disorder, you might not want or be able to do your regular activities like hanging out with friends, going to work, or going to school. For women who started using hormonal birth control around the same time they started feeling low, it can be tempting to blame the birth control for their depression.

MYTH: Birth control causes depression.

When the pill first came out in the 1960s, there was concern that it could be causing depression. But today’s pills contain 8-10 times less hormones (estrogen and progestin). Other methods, such as the ring and IUD has an even lower doses of hormones. Studies of women using our modern combined hormonal birth control methods have shown that they experience a variety of moods. For some women, birth control improved mood and depression. Other studies have also shown that women taking combined hormonal contraceptives have less variability in their mood than women using non-hormonal birth control.

There have also been studies of progestin-only birth control, such as the shot, implant and Mirena IUD. There was no difference in likelihood of depression between women using the shot compared to non-hormonal birth control. Even after a year of Depo use, the studies found no change in depression.

The bottom line is that there has been no consistent evidence that the birth control causes depression. Looking at a woman’s mental health when she starts using birth control is probably the best way to predict how she’ll feel with or without birth control.

FACT: You know your body (and mood) the best.

You’re the only one who truly knows how you feel. Everyone reacts to birth control differently, so remember that while birth does not, in general, cause or worsen depression, some individuals may have mood changes on birth control. If you feel your birth control might be contributing to depression, talk with your doctor. Remember, there are a lot of birth control methods out there—you can find the right one for your life!

If you are concerned that you might be depressed, here are some great resources to learn more and find help near you.

Grace Shih, MD, MAS is a family practice physician in Seattle, WA. She completed her family medicine residency at Brown University and her family planning fellowship at University of California, San Francisco. When she's not seeing patients, you can find her cooking, hiking, or salsa dancing.

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